Overall, 54% of the U.S. public names China as the country posing the greatest challenge to the United States—Russia is a distant second at 22%.

CSIS | Public Q1

By the Numbers

  • 54%

    of the U.S. public names China as the country posing the greatest challenge to the United States.

  • 21%

    of the U.S. public views China as "very negative" (a score of "1" on a scale of 1 to 10).

This is a striking change from other public opinion polls in recent years in which North Korea and Russia have sometimes vied with China as the greatest threat. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that 31% of Americans (answering an open-ended question) cited Russia as the country representing the greatest danger to the United States, while 22% pointed to North Korea. Only 13% of Americans cited China. In addition, every year, Gallup asks the American public: "What one country anywhere in the world do you consider to be the United States’ greatest enemy today?" In 2018, 51% of Americans answered North Korea, 19% of Americans answered Russia, and 11% of Americans answered China. In 2019, 32% of Americans answered Russia, 21% of Americans answered China, and 14% of Americans answered North Korea. The most recent survey from 2020 found that 23% of Americans consider Russia to be the United States’ greatest enemy today, 22% of Americans consider China to be the greatest enemy today, and 19% of Americans consider Iran to be the greatest enemy today.

This result tracks with the most recent polls on China since the outbreak of Covid-19. A Chicago Council for Global Affairs survey published in September 2020 found that 55% of Americans consider "the development of China as a world power" a critical threat. In addition, a July 2020 Pew poll found that 73% of U.S. adults say they have an unfavorable view of China, up 26 percentage points since 2018. A recent Politico/Morning Consult survey of public opinion found that U.S. registered voters consider China least important among a range of issues that might matter to their vote, though the broader category of national security ranked fifth out of 11 issues referenced.

It is important to note that in other public polling, climate change ranks high as the largest threat, especially for younger Americans. The CSIS survey focuses on nation-state challengers only but finds China least threatening to younger Americans (42% for ages 18–30, compared to 58% for ages 46–66 and 63% for ages 67 and older).

Republicans are significantly more likely to view China as a threat than Democrats (74% of Republicans, compared to 39% of Democrats). Those who identify as Democrats are more divided between China (39%) and Russia (34%).

This tracks with recent polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which found that 67% of Republicans are most concerned about China as a possible threat to U.S. interests, compared to 53% of independents and Democrats who do not consider China as one of the top seven critical threats. China is seen to be a critical threat by 47% of Democrats and 43% of those who lean Democrat. In addition, a 2020 poll by Gallup found that 31% of Republicans believe China to be the United States’ greatest enemy, compared to 23% of independents and just 12% of Democrats.

The CSIS survey shows the U.S. public overwhelmingly has a negative view of China. On a scale of 1 to 10 where "1" means very negative, and "10" means very positive, 56% of respondents say that their overall view of China is negative (responses of 1 through 4 on the scale). Moreover, 21% of Americans surveyed view China very negatively (1 on the scale). Of all respondents, 16% have a positive view of China (responses of 7 through 10 on the scale), and only 5% view China very positively (10 on the scale).

U.S. public opinion on China has trended negative over the past few years. A recent Pew Research Center poll found 73% of Americans have an unfavorable view of China. In 2018, a Gallup poll found that 53% of Americans viewed China favorably, but that number dropped to 41% in 2019 and 33% in 2020.